Flesh vs Faith Part 8: Belief In The One Who Justifies The Ungodly

And God said to Abraham, “So shall your descendants be.”
Genesis 15:5

In the previous article, I ran through three events in Abraham’s life. They all appeared to be Abraham living his life of faith without direct leading from God. In Genesis 15, there is direct Revelation to Abraham from God. Contrary to our expectation, the response of Faith to revelation that quite obviously was from God seems more amazing than that of living out faith without such a direct word. Plus, this chapter contains one of the most theologically significant statements in Scripture: Abraham believed the Lord and he counted it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). In the New Testament, this statement is expounded on by Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 and James, in James 2. One writer observed that this section has the first biblical occurrences of 1) The word of the Lord came to …; 2) Fear not; 3) Believed; 4) Counted and 5) Righteousness. It is also the first time the Hebrew title Adonai is used for God and used in conjunction with YHWH.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1) The timing of this passage is “after these things”, clearly meaning the events of Chapter 14. With no more precise time statement, it seems that Genesis 15 follows fairly shortly after Abraham’s campaign to rescue Lot and his meeting the two kings. So, like chapter 13, it appears that this revelation comes after a faith decision by Abraham. Starting off, Do not fear may indicate that Abraham suffered some post-victory let down or depression.

The statement in verse 1 points back to chapter 14. I am your shield uses the same root as Melchizedek’s Worthy of praise is the Most High God, who delivered your enemies into your hand (Genesis 14:20) and the promise of very great reward looks back to Abraham’s stand for the Lord by refusing reward from the King of Sodom. Abraham, refreshed by celebration with Melchizedek, had said “I will not receive reward from you” and God assured him “exactly right, I have your reward with me.”

But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:2-5) This chapter marks a transition in the story of Abraham. Chapters 12-14 the promised land has prominence, while from here on, the tensions surrounding the delay and the fulfillment of the promised seed become more central. In response to God’s promise, Abraham brings up his lack of a son. I think we can assume that God was aware of Abraham’s concern for a son, but his statement in verse 1 does not mention it. From a human perspective, it seems right that if Abraham were suffering from post-victory letdown, his feelings of “what isn’t right” would be fairly broad and multi-faceted. At least that is the way it works for me. If I am funky, you try to comfort me in one area and I will find other things to bring up.

Important to note here, is that Abraham’s objection is not considered a lack of faith. The call of God included that he would be a great nation (Genesis 12:2). Also, in Genesis 13:16, God promised him offspring as the dust of the earth. It is Abraham’s faith in these promises that brings up the question of his heir. In what seems to be a play on words, Abraham says I continue childless. The word translated continue is the word for walk or go, I walk childless. It has already been used in God’s call (12:1) and in Abraham’s response (12:4,5,9; 13:3). Significantly, it will be used in Genesis 22:6 when no longer childless, Abraham walks with his son to the place he was called to sacrifice him.

It could be that from the outside, people could look at Abraham and say God fulfilled his promise. That Abraham is a great nation, given that he had just beaten several kings in battle. God’s promise that he is Abraham’s shield is a promise that no reprisals will overtake him. But to Abraham, the concern was for an heir, one from his house who will receive his estate and his promises. What good are riches when you die and they go to someone other than your own child? Abraham was in the position that a servant was going to get his possessions when he died.

God’s response is very strong, This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir (Genesis 15:4). Abraham at this point was around 85 years old, which places Sarah around 75 and barren up to now. Human anticipation of a child had probably waned quite a bit by then. God points to the stated heir and says that he will not be the heir. God’s promises were to go to Abraham’s own son; out of his loins, as the KJV says it. God illustrates his promise, like in chapter 13. This time, he tells Abraham to look at the stars and count them, if he could, to see how many descendants he would have. The point is not getting Abraham to count the stars, but the overwhelming sight of a starry night which we’ve all seen. Probably it was so much more back then before light and air pollution dimmed the skies. Also, by pointing to the creation, God was pointing to the Creator. Do you think you are too old for children? I created all this from nothing, I will make a great nation from you.

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6) As I said, this is one of the most theologically significant statements in Scripture. There is a linguistic observation to be made. While verse six follows verse five, the thought of verse six is not sequential to verse five. That is, a straight reading in English will make you think that what Abraham believed was God’s promise in verse five, and so verse six would indicate that it was at this time that God counted Abraham’s faith for righteousness. One commentary I read made it sound like this was the incident where Abraham’s faith reached the level necessary for God to count it as righteousness (which kinda makes faith sound like a work, or at least some work-upable commodity). However, in Hebrew the wording shows that verse six is not in sequence with verse five (It starts with a waw disjunctive and the verb is in the perfect tense, while the other verbs in the context are imperfect). It is like verse six is a parenthetical comment in between five and seven which really are in sequence. Thus, verse six is a statement of something which happened earlier than this time (I would say it was chapter 12 with Abraham’s response to the call of God). Taken so, that would make verse six the foundation for the covenantal activity in chapter 15. In other words, God promised Abraham descendents as the stars and was soon to unilaterally covenant with Abraham concerning the far future of the people and the land, but what from Abraham? He had believed God and so the Holy Creator counted that for Abraham’s righteousness. This covenant did not give Abraham salvation, it was a covenant by God with Abraham who had already believed and to whom righteousness was already imputed.

Paul’s comment on this verse shows the grace of it, Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:4,5). Notice that in the context of Paul’s quote, the “ungodly” whom God justified was none other than Abraham. Abraham, the friend of God, did not start from any superior position of godliness or any superior list of accomplishments. As Paul later states, it was not just for Abraham’s benefit that Genesis 15:6 was written, but for ours also. It (righteousness) will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, (Romans 4:24)

Abraham believed God. This belief is defined by Paul, again, in Romans 4:21, Abraham was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. So Abraham’s faith was a conviction that what God says matters. It matters here. It matters now. Given a Revelation from God, Abraham was certain that God will fulfill it.

To this point the subsequent actions of the chapter are important. A ceremony is played out. This was a not uncommon ritual of covenant-making so that those who covenant walk between slain animals mutually saying that should I break this covenant, I would be slain like these animals. In this ritual only one, God, walked through the animals. Abraham, to whom the promises are given, was obligated to nothing. All obligations are on God to fulfill the covenant.

The believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has been justified and declared righteous. Jesus’ own righteousness is counted as ours. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) This is what God has revealed. It matters here. It matters now. We can live lives persuaded that what God says, he will accomplish. As I said before, even we cannot stand against God’s love.

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